Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Theban Legion: Sainthood and Chivalry

Reliquary of St. Maurice (source).

Today is the feast of the St. Maurice and the Theban Legion.  According to The Golden Legend, an entire Roman Legion was put to the sword for converting to Christianity during the persecution of Diocletian at Agaunum in what is now Switzerland.  It is a problematic story, much enhanced and garbled over the ages.  Scholars argue whether it was an entire legion, whether it happened under Diocletian, and whether it happened at all.  1100 years after the fact, The Golden Legend made their story a grand tale of chivalry and their leader, St. Maruice, a particular paragon of knightly virtue:

Then Cæsar commended his knights that they should go and constrain them to do sacrifice to the gods, or else they should slay always the tenth man. … St. Maurice arose up and said to his fellows among other things: … because that we be enclosed with the bodies of the knights our fellows, and have our clothes red of their blood, let us then follow them by martyrdom. And if it please you, let us send this answer unto Cæsar: We be thy knights, sir emperor, and have taken arms to the defence of the common weal; in us is no treason ne dread, but in no wise we will forsake the law ne faith of Jesu Christ.

And when the emperor heard that, he commanded to behead yet the tenth man of them. And when that was done, one of the bannerers, named Exsuperius, took the banner and stood among them and said: …We be knights of thine empire, but we confess us to be servants of Jesu Christ; we owe unto thee chivalry, and unto him innocence, and of thee we attend the reward of our labour, and of him we have the beginning of life. And we be ready to receive for him all torments, and we shall not depart from his faith.

Abbey of St. Maurice (source).
… Then were environed the knights of Jesu Christ with knights of the devil, that one of them should not escape, and were all to-hewn, and smitten off heads and hands, and trodden under the feet of the horses, and were sacred martyrs of Christ. And they suffered death in the year of our Lord two hundred and eighty.

Whatever did or did not happen in Agaunum on that day, a monastery was founded in 515 on the traditional site of the martyrdom, which now lays claim to being Europe’s oldest religious community.  Though it changed from a house of monks to a chapter of canons in the Carolingian era, The Abbey of St. Maurice has seen the Carolingians, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Hapsburgs come and go, a legacy of persistence worthy of those whose memory it was founded to honor. 

You can read The Golden Legend's entire account of St. Maurice and his companions here.